Come what may, he’s open for business: ‘I’ll hang in there till the bitter end’

Stephen Yundt, on the impact of lava on his life and Pahoa business

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - If there's a word that can be used to best describe Stephen Yundt, it's "survivor."

The owner of the Pahoa restaurant Pele's Kitchen says he's been tested in life after several brushes with disasters, including last year's Kilauea eruption. And despite a slew of neighboring restaurants closing shop after the eruption, Yundt vows to stay put.

"I’ve had five restaurants in my life," Yundt said. "This is my last one and I’d like to stay in business. It’s my way of surviving. I’ll hang in there till the bitter end."

[Click here to see the full documentary, Pele’s Path: The Journey Home]

Stephen Yundt and his wife, Liz, first opened Pele’s Kitchen in Hilo about seven years ago. But after about a year, they decided to take their business to their hometown of Pahoa.

"This is a magical place," Yundt said, describing the lush beauty of Pahoa. "It’s more friendly, maybe because it’s not as populated, and this Puna area is less populated. It’s more jungle, more natural, and we just fell in love with it years ago."

Since opening in Pahoa, Yundt has faced three eruptions. But the Puu Oo eruption in 2014 was the toughest for him because the lava flow nearly took out his restaurant.

"You could see the lava coming through those trees behind this yellow building about four blocks back," he said.

As the lava edged eerily close to his restaurant, Yundt feared that was the end of everything. But then, "Pele just changed directions and everything was fine."

"It was miraculous," Yundt said.

Four years later, Yundt was tested yet again with the eruption at Kilauea's lower east rift zone.

The Yundts live just five blocks away from fissure 8, the most active fissure during the 2018 eruption. And as the eruption continued for what seemed like months on end, the air became so toxic that they were forced to leave their home and the farm they manage.

"The air was poison, the plants had died, all of our fish died," Yundt said.

But being away from home proved to be even more challenging as the Yundts faced mortgage payments and thousands of dollars in rent elsewhere, so they moved back.

"We got brave and had to close the windows at night. We had oxygen equipment to put on our face when it was really bad air."

Stephen Yundt | Pele's Path: The Journey Home

Meanwhile, the Yundts continued to operate Pele’s Kitchen ― even while all of this was going on.

Although there weren't any close calls with encroaching lava flows this time around, the eruption itself hit business hard.

On a typical Sunday, roughly 140 customers on average dined at Pele's Kitchen for brunch. But a year later, the restaurant sees an average of about 75 to 78 customers.

That’s because tourism has been down across the board ― in all of Pahoa.

"Some places have actually closed up because it’s just been undoable," Yundt said. "I would say that the eruption has been poor for the economy here because it’s an island-based economy and we rely on tourism."

Although Yundt was spared from the worst of the eruption, he points out the many other business owners ― and homeowners ― whose prized possessions were claimed by lava.

"Maybe they had a business like an orchid business, papaya business or something like that and they lost their business and they lost their house and they lost everything they had," Yundt said.

Life is finally starting to return to lower Puna, giving Yundt a chance to reflect on everything that happened.

He doesn't know what could happen in the future, but one thing he knows for sure: He's not going anywhere.

“There are risks and what they say is when the lava is flowing, step aside because there is nothing you can do, and then you rebuild afterwards or you decide on a different life,” Yundt said. “Pele tests people. If you decide you want to go on, then you might have to change your whole life around”

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